A Naturopathic Perspective on Insomnia

When it comes to insomnia and poor sleep my clinical experience tells me that what we really need to be doing is look at the source. In other words, if you were a tree and the insomnia or poor quality of sleep (the symptoms) are represented by the leaves, our inquiry needs to be centred around what’s happening at the level of the soil and at the roots (of the proverbial tree). This is where we find the diet, stress and lifestyle factors that contribute to nutrient deficiencies, toxicity, inflammation and the other driving factors that are causing the disturbances and symptoms in the first place. So rather than just trying to band-aid or prune the leaves and branches with various remedies (that are not going to treat at the source level), you’ll find it more effective (and life-changing) to work from the ground up…

So what does that mean?

The substances we put in our body have such a major influence on our physiology –from our hormones and nervous system (including our brain), our immune system function, how we feel emotionally, clarity of mind and concentration, ageing processes, you name it –the lot! And whilst there are many factors that can contribute to a person’s experience of insomnia, our diet and the kinds of things we’re eating and drinking can be a (if not THE) major culprit. To read more on food & sleep, see my Guide to Eating Right for Better Sleep)

If you’re suffering through your own version of poor sleep or insomnia, it’s likely you’re not feeling great. Once insomnia and poor sleep establishes a habit, it can become difficult to cope after a while.  You probably still having to get up and appear like a normal, functioning person…  So what do you do?

Well, most people begin to rely on caffeine and high energy, sugar-laden foods to get up and going and push you through the walls of fatigue and dullness so they can show up and get things done. Physiologically, blood-sugars will spike -which will help you through; but they’ll soon also crash -which is a bit like catching a wave to surf and then being dumped! It essentially creates a cycle of reliance on substances and behaviours –for example, that propensity for an alcoholic beverage of an evening, carb/sweet or salty cravings, inordinate amounts of screen-time and being sedentary.

Whilst these practices initially appear to help in managing the fallout from the poor quality sleep, it also creates not only a deficit in the system (from poor nutrition and unbalanced stress and lifestyle factors) but establishes an unhealthy crutch that you probably feel you need to go about your day and demands, and to get through. You’ll likely be relying on “uppers” –things you’ve found that help to get you functioning -like coffee or chocolate for example; and “downers” like alcohol, a big rich meal or even chocolate again (seemingly conversely, but it also hits the “reward” centres in the brain and alters the brain chemistry to soothe, as well as pep you up). These things appear to work in the short term and help bring you back to a place that feels more “relaxed” or is more conducive to falling asleep. 

But how you feel in the morning when you wake is usually the best sign to go by, as it is your indicator for quality of sleep. And we’ve all had those “perfect” 8+hr nights of sleep and woken feeling less-than-amazing. So it’s not necessarily about the amount of sleep-time you’ve clocked up in a night, nor the fact that you may be sleeping through. So let’s explore quality of sleep a little further…

What kind of sleep disturbances are you experiencing?

□      Having difficulty getting to sleep, feeling tired, but too “wired”, and unable to wind down at the end of the day?  

□      Have you come to rely upon certain “crutches” -like alcohol, chocolate, ice-cream or tv to help you wind down?

□      Are you generally able to fall asleep OK, but are waking during the night?

□      Are you technically “sleeping through”, but your sleep is restless and non-refreshing –are you waking feeling just as tired (or more so!) than when you went to bed the night before, feeling headachy, unmotivated, slow  or foggy on a regular basis?

□      Do you find yourself waking too early in the (middle-of-the-night) morning, having 2 a.m, 3 a.m and 4 a.m wake-ups; lying awake for hours at a time and unable to fall back asleep, or falling asleep right before your alarm goes off…?

Well, you’re not alone!

Here are some of the most common factors that play a role in insomnia and poor quality of sleep:

·       Stress! Plays a huge role in insomnia, and is an absolute must-look in any case.

·       Diet and nutrition: excesses, deficiencies, toxicity and inflammation; psychoactive substances such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, opioids and medications.

·       Blood glucose imbalances (one of the triggers for insomnia) can cause a neuroendocrine response that activates the brain to be awake -hence, an early dinner that is not rich and is easily digestible + a light snack or gentle supper in the hour before bedtime can help. (see my Guide to Eating Right for Better Sleep for more information on how our food choices can help you sleep better)

·       Hormonal disturbances and irregularities e.g. menopause

·       Rich meals and desserts

·       Stimulant intake throughout the day - sugar, caffeine, alcohol (yes, alcohol initially acts as a depressant on the nervous system; but it winds up messing with blood glucose levels and burdening the liver, which can be a major causative factor in sleep issues)

·       Electromagnetic disturbances from electronic gadgetry, wiring and lights in the bedroom

·       Exposure to short wavelength blue light emitted from our phones/tv which impacts the pineal gland and reduces melatonin (the hormone responsible for regulating our sleep and circadian rhythm)

·       Other underlying conditions, for example:  stress, anxiety or depression; sleep apnoea; menopause; arthritis; gastric ulcer

·       Medications

·       Sedentary lifestyle

It is worth noting that many of the factors listed above are not only underlying causes in insomnia and poor quality of sleep; but many –such as elevated stress hormones, intake of high-caloric, sugary, quick energy-releasing foods, use of stimulants, hormonal disturbances, depression, anxiety and states of inflammation like arthritis –are also behaviours and effects that are in turn, driven by insomnia and poor sleep. So a vicious cycle ensues, and it can be a real “chicken or egg” situation.

Good quality of sleep is so vital to our health and wellbeing.

If we’re sleeping poorly, it not only impacts our energy, how we feel, or our focus, cognition, and how we eat on any given day. Chronic poor quality sleep also sparks inflammation and disease pathways in the body, can cause leaky gut, foggy head -and even brain damage; it promotes metabolic, endocrine and cardiovascular disorders, and is terrible for mood and mental health. In essence, if you are experiencing consistent poor quality sleep or insomnia it’s an awful space to be in, and it’s important you to seek professional help so you can feel well and be well again soon!